Clinton Engelberger, a 19-year-old student at the University of South Florida, grew up Catholic. But in recent years, he said, religion hasn’t played a big role in his life.
There was not one thing that led to it, he said, but rather something that just tapered off.
“It just kind of happened naturally, as I developed more opinions of my own,” he said. “With this generation, there’s a lot of openness and access to information and people can make their own opinions.”
Anthony Pistella, 21-year-old student at the University of Florida, noticed the same feelings as he moved away from his religious upbringing.
“People now aren’t afraid to have different opinions,” he said.
Their experiences echo the results of a recent Gallup poll, which found that, for the first time, less than half of adults in the United States belong to a house of worship.
Until the 1990s, more than 70 percent of Americans belonged to a church. Experts say the shift is due in part to demographic changes. Higher percentages of religious affiliation exist with traditionalists and baby boomers, who are aging out, while millennials and members of Generation Z — people born from the mid 1990s to 2010 — are less attached to those institutions.
The reasons vary.
James Cavendish, a University of South Florida sociology professor who studies religion, said scholars have pointed to the entangling of religion and politics as a reason people have left. Some say the religious right’s affiliation with extremists has pushed them away, while others have found that religions haven’t upheld traditional beliefs and gone too far to the left.
Others, oftentimes immigrants, simply practice religion at home instead of joining a house of worship, he said.
But with Generation Z, a group known for social consciousness, organized religion is not connecting, Cavendish said.
“My own opinion is that if religious organizations want to continue to appeal to young people, they will need to adapt,” he said. “And it will need to be less emphatic and less absolutist in its religious pronouncement about issues, whether it be abortion or sexuality.”
Those who work closest with students say they have long sensed the need to engage younger generations.
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal has been involved in campus ministry for more than 20 years and is the director of Suncoast Hillels, a group that works with Jewish college students in the Tampa Bay area.
“What I hear all the time now is ‘I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,’” he said. “They want something, but they don’t buy into the trappings of organized religion. They’ll believe in God and want to connect to something on a higher level. But who wants to sit in a synagogue while somebody mumbles in a language they don’t understand and get preached at?”
Rosenthal said he’s been a believer in meeting students where they’re at. When he was a campus minister at Emory University in Atlanta, he started inviting students who wouldn’t come to Hillel to go scuba diving with him. It launched a program he called “Scubi Jew.”
When he came to Eckerd College in 2009, he expanded it. The Tikkun HaYam, or “Scubi Jew” program now focuses on marine conservation from a faith perspective and has spread to other campuses. Aside from dives, the group regularly participates in ocean and reef cleanups, and has led campaigns to switch away from single-use plastics.
“Because they’re so passionate about the ocean, it really forced me to delve deeper into our tradition and find what our tradition says about the marine environment and water,” Rosenthal said.
When he brought the ideas to students, it was like someone flipped a switch, he said. Many hadn’t thought about religion in that way.
“Just find out what the passions of the next generation are,” Rosenthal said. “Religious traditions that have been around for thousands of years have fundamentally touched on almost every aspect of a person’s life. It is a challenge — a challenge of how to be relevant in the lives of a generation that has the world at their fingertips.”
Rev. Randall Meissen, chaplain at Saint Leo University in Pasco County, said those involved with campus ministry have long been aware of the trends.
“We’re in a different era than perhaps in the past,” he said. “It no longer works to simply ring the church bells and hope that young people come through the doors. Ministry today … really requires you to go out and encounter young people where they are.”
Meissen said he felt the onus should be on organized religion to maintain relevance in young people’s lives, particularly in being able to talk about people often on the periphery of society. He said he’s seen the most excitement and engagement from young people from some of Pope Francis’ statements that they may not have expected to hear.
“I think it’s crucial for religious leaders, on our side, to be conversant in those key social issues and bring to the floor that there is a long tradition of faith reflection and faith advocacy around social justice,” he said.
“The core of it is the understanding of each human person created in the image and likeness of God and that bestows on every person. And that might be a problem with some organized churches that we don’t speak enough about those aspects of faith and that faith seems terribly abstract and removed from the real difficulties and crises of day to day life and society. But it shouldn’t be that way.”
While social pressure compelled previous generations to attend churches or houses of worship, Meissen said, it also resulted in a deep sense of community he fears is missing among younger people.
Today’s digital communities aren’t as strong, he contends. So he tries to organize outings in nature — hikes and chats around bonfires that lend themselves to deeper conversation.
Still, he said, the pressures many young adults face in the gig economy, requiring them to string together multiple jobs for income, often don’t leave the typical Saturday or Sunday as a day of rest.
“People are lucky if they have a break to go to the bathroom,” Meissen said. “Where is the space in our modern economy for contemplation, for faith, for any sort of organized social group?”